Winter… inside the house

Posted on January 30, 2015

Let’s be honest: Rome is not exactly a wintery city. It’s known for long stretches of sunny days and its fierce summer heat, and maybe also for its equally fierce rainstorms, but it is not known for excessively cold weather or snow or anything else that would make its winter months remarkable in any way.

Except, despite this, between December and March I am constantly, uncomfortably cold.

I can deal with it being cold outside. This seems natural, and it’s easy enough to block out most of the cold with appropriate clothing. It’s the part where I’m also cold indoors, everywhere, that starts to get to me after a while. When I can no longer remember what it feels like to sit in a restaurant without shivers running up and down my spine every time someone opens the door, I immediately want to go home and hibernate until spring. The worst part, though, is that home isn’t actually the well-heated and cozy haven from winter that I’d like it to be. My apartment building was constructed in the 1500s. It may have incredibly thick outer walls, but their effectiveness at trapping heat inside is undermined by single-pane windows that don’t quite meet the marble windowsill and doors that don’t keep out drafts.

Sometimes I sit at my dining room table, laptop open in front of me, wrapped in the heavy down-filled duvet from the spare bed and still somehow shivering – probably because my extremities, protruding from the blanket, are frozen – and I think, this is ridiculous. Then I give in and crank the thermostat to its maximum, a theoretically balmy 35 degrees Celsius, even though experience has taught me that this makes virtually no difference and may in fact cause the hot water heater to die – again.

The heater, with two radiators positioned directly beneath the living room windows so that the heated air can be immediately neutralized by the draft, makes a few purposeful clanking and ticking noises, followed by a slight smell of hot dust. Half an hour later, if I stand with my legs pressed up against the radiator, I can feel the heat. Three hours later, the temperature in the room has crept upwards by perhaps half a degree.

The whole time, I’m feeling worried that I might actually be overusing the heat, not so much because of the energy used, but for potentially wearing out and eventually destroying the aging caldaia – a box attached to the wall outside the kitchen, tasked with heating water on demand and pumping it throughout the apartment. Although supposedly better than a traditional hot water tank, the whole concept seems archaic and vaguely sinister: Every time I turn on the heat or flick a tap towards the “hot” position, the caldaia issues a sort of grinding whirr, and then a flame is ignited, which I can see through a tiny window in the its flimsy white metal cover.

As disconcerting as it can be to see the actual fire that’s supposed to be heating the bathwater or the entire apartment, it’s worse still when I drowsily climb into the shower in the morning only to find that the water will not get even the slightest bit warm – and then a drippy, towel-wrapped inspection of the caldaia reveals no flame, with grim, acrid smoke curling lazily out of a vent in the bottom.

The first few times this happened, I found that I could resuscitate the caldaia with a sharp smack on the case, restoring the flow of hot water for a few weeks, then days, then hours, and then… nothing. I endured several days of glacial showers before the repair man could show up, weld something to something else, and declare his work done. It broke again a year later – smoke and some menacing clicking. This time I backed away, telephone in hand, and one glacial shower later the repairman showed up, replaced a broken sensor, and told me that the water heater was “a very outdated model”, which I think was code for “your water heater will soon break completely, probably during the depths of winter”.

All of this is a long-winded way of explaining the little surge of nervousness that I get every time I crank up the heat in my apartment in an attempt to spend even just a fraction of the day at a comfortable temperature in which I can actually feel my toes and my fingers stop feeling like flexible ice cubes. And so, partially out a probably misguided attempt to not overtax my water heater, and partially because it makes so little difference anyhow, I keep the heat low, keep the down-filled duvet wrapped firmly around me and keep my feet encased in multiple layers of thick, fluffy socks.

Because if there’s one thing I can be very sure of, it’s that summer in Rome will bring me all the heat I’ve ever wanted – and more – and may actually leave me reminiscing fondly over these blanket-wrapped winter months.

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Comments on this post

Georgette Jupe 9 February 2015 at 2:36 pm

I adored this post Sara also because I am like you. Working from home, normally with a scarf wrapped around my neck and using Ginger, our beagle, as a lap warmer. Also out building was built in the 1400’s, like yours, and retains the cold with a stubborn resistance that only the Florentines could represent ;-). When we visited Finland late last year, the fact that you could walk into a restaurant or house and it be so warm you could stay in a t-shirt almost seemed wasteful to me, but I suppose I have become somewhat Italian. Let’s hope spring and summer don’t take too long to arrive and soon we will be complaining about the heat ;-)

    Sara White 10 February 2015 at 9:29 am

    I need to get a puppy lap warmer too. Although perhaps it would demand more attention and cuddling than a space heater would!

Wynne 9 February 2015 at 10:45 pm

Space heaters?

It’s miserable being too hot, but painful to be too cold. So sorry you’re experiencing that! Here in NYC, the radiators are so hot we have to crack our windows, as they can’t be regulated: they’re either on or off. I rarely turn on the bedroom radiator, and only turn on the living room one long enough to make a difference. I’m usually ok in sweats, sweatshirt and slippers or fluffy socks over my regular socks.

I have a coat from LL Bean that weighs about an ounce (and is good for temps down to -25 F) , so lightweight that when I was in the Italian Alps last winter, I wore it like a sweater. That may be an option for you vs. several layers. And since my “mouse hand” gets cold in the winter while on my computer in the bedroom, I swear by finger-less gloves.

Here’s the coat, and it comes in thigh-length as well:

Here’s hoping for an early spring for you!

    Sara White 10 February 2015 at 9:32 am

    That coat is a lot like the coats that a ton of Italians are wearing around town this time of year. I like the thigh-length coat inside the house idea – it would be a lot like wearing a sleeping bag with sleeves, which sounds appealing right about now.

    (I have a feeling a space heater would flip the circuit breakers in my apartment, something that already happens whenever I simultaneously use the oven and the washing machine!)

Igor Fobia 10 February 2015 at 2:37 am

I remember an Italian friend of mine didn’t want even to consider the idea of moving to northern Europe because she could barely resist to the cold here. But the truth is that in many of those countries have buildings designed to resist to that temperatures, and therefore it actually feels warmer. I’ve heard of Swedes who have never felt as cold as in Spain, where many houses have no heating systems.

    Sara White 10 February 2015 at 9:34 am

    I’ve heard that in Northern Europe they say that there’s no bad weather, only bad clothing – and they have a point, sort of. I think I would still find all that snow and ice miserable even with the heaviest coat. But they do seem to know how to keep their homes warm enough!

Marta Abbott 20 February 2015 at 7:49 pm

I love this post and I can relate! The house we live in now is better than the last one but I often find myself at the computer with fingerless gloves and double-layered socks and it drives me a little crazy! Especially since it’s really not all that cold outside….

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